Interview: Meera Syal

With her 1996 novel Anita and Me adapted for stage and heading to Blackpool this March, Meera Syal talks about growing up caught between two cultures

“I grew up in a very white area and went to a very white school and a very white university. I was often the only one who was different,” muses actress and author Meera Syal. “A lot of us grow up not fearing other cultures but surrounded by them and learning from them, but there are lots of pockets of Britain where that still doesn’t happen.”

It’s a familiar story in Blackpool, where just 3.3 per cent of residents are black or minority ethnic, well below the national average of 14 per cent. An equally familiar story might be Anita and Me, Syal’s 1996 Betty Trask Award-winning debut novel, written before her BBC sketch comedy Goodness Gracious Me made her a household name.

A comic and poignant coming-of-age tale, Anita and Me follows Meena, a young girl growing up in the only Punjabi family in a 1970s Black Country mining village. When the impossibly cool Anita enters her life Meena finds an idol but she isn’t all she seems and Meena’s world is turned upside down as she is caught between two very different cultures.

“Meena hero worships Anita – Anita is the girl she wants to be,” elaborates 55-year-old Syal. “But through the friendship she discovers that actually she’s stronger than Anita and, moving from worship, she sees her as a frail and flawed human being. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love Anita, but she loves herself more. She’s stopped wanting to become somebody else.

“I think that’s a good message to send out to anyone growing up because I think we all go through that phase where we feel we’re not good enough, there’s somebody else we want to be, we’re not cool enough, we’re not thin enough, we’re not popular enough, and actually it’s Meena’s differences that prove to be her passport out of that little town. Her difference makes her special.”

In 2002 Syal adapted the book for screen and today it’s a popular stage musical staring Shobna Gulati (Dinnerladies, Coronation Street). After opening in Syal’s hometown of Wolverhampton it visits Blackpool’s Grand Theatre 7-11 March before heading to Bradford and various other venues outside of the major UK cities.

“This is a non-London story – a very specific regional story but one that applies to so many communities. I think it will have a lot more resonance than it would in the capital, for all those rural communities and mining communities that were changed so much by what happened in the 80s and 90s.”

In that spirit, the professional cast will perform alongside eight actors drawn from the local community, providing a professional opportunity often inaccessible to talented actors in towns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the story is semi-autobiographical: “A lot of the emotions are very much mine from memory. A lot of how Meena feels about herself and her family is stuff I felt as a kid and there was a girl in the village I absolutely hero-worshipped, although she wasn’t half as bad as Anita,” says Syal, laughing. “I still recognise the over-enthusiastic compulsive liar, except now I get paid for it – which is fantastic.”

After writing the book and then the screenplay Syal says she didn’t want to go through what she describes as a difficult experience again. Instead she handed the reins to Amnesty Media Award-winning playwright Tanika Gupta.

“I was much happier to hand it over to her. We’re very good friends so we chatted quite a lot about it, although more to do with things about the village and my life rather than structural problems. I went to meet all the cast and took some family pictures and talked about growing up.

“I think she’s done a great job. She’s really found the sort of beating heart of the two girls and I think she’s found the vitality and fun of the village and that’s why as a musical it works so well. You want to feel the pain and joy of that little community in transit. It’s representative of a dying bit of British working-class life that’s sort of gone for a lot of people and that I felt very privileged to be part of. Tanika has captured that feeling of a close community and then a close community slowly falling apart under outside pressures. The emotion of it really comes through and I think the politics of it as well. You can’t escape the horrible things she goes through and the racism she goes through, but it’s dealt with in a very real and tender way actually.”

Set against a backdrop of three-day week era Tory austerity and racial hostility in the face of changing communities, Anita and me is arguably more relevant today than it was in the prosperous 1990s when there was an keen appetite for Asian representation in British popular culture, albeit sometimes a stereotypical one that Syal herself was known for using to her comedic advantage. But underneath the droll scripts were important explorations of conflict and integration.

“I hope audiences come away understanding the value of connecting with people who are different to yourself. What’s more important is the stuff we share, our humanity, rather than the stuff that makes us different.

“I think particularly in these times where we’ve all been affected by fear of the outsider it’s good to be reminded that we were all immigrants once, even the people who think they’ve been here for generations. Once upon a time they were probably immigrants too.”

Anita and Me is at Blackpool Grand Theatre, 7-11 March. For more information or to book ticekts visit blackpoolgrand.co.uk

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